In the Reach of Madmen

By Richard Cohen
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In my day, Fort Dix, N.J., billed itself as the home of the Ultimate Weapon. That weapon, depicted by a heroic statue at the front gate, was the lowly infantryman armed only with his rifle and appearing to shout something like "Follow me!" This was the Army's way of countering the glamour of the other services, particularly the Air Force. It took boots on the ground -- not planes overhead -- to really win a war. It took, in short, the ultimate weapon. No one could kill better.

Now from Blacksburg, Va., comes additional evidence that there is nothing as dangerous as a single man and nothing as unpredictable as the mind of man. The man who is said to be responsible for all those killings, 32 in all, will be examined down to microscopic detail. But no matter what anyone says, Cho Seung Hui was just mad. Other terms will be applied to him and, of course, he's already being called a loner, but the simple fact is that he was mad -- maybe not for long, but when it mattered, long enough.

The mind of man lags. Our machines are wonderful. Our toys are thrilling. Our clothes and foods are sophisticated. But our minds are stuck in the antediluvian past. If something happens to these minds -- often we don't know what -- they act bizarrely, react strangely, go just plain mad. Maybe it helps to say that someone like Cho Seung Hui is evil, but in the end the word is empty of meaning. After all, he did not seek to enslave someone or rob someone or rape anyone or conquer their country. He wanted only to do something totally mad. Maybe evil is just another name for madness.

Soon, the talk will turn to gun control. Or the lack of it. That's appropriate. Madmen should not have easy access to guns. But then, people who already have guns sometimes go mad. And sometimes people who go mad know people who aren't and they are the ones who have the guns. A parent, for instance. A friend, for instance. Maybe the gun is kept in the house just for protection. By a little old woman. You can see how these things can happen.

Here again, though, we have something very worrisome: madness combined with technology. The guns are awesome. They can get off so many shots. They do not break down. They are steady in the hand and easy to aim. The Founding Fathers stand corrected. The Second Amendment comes from a different time, one when madmen could do limited damage.

To our minds, the Sept. 11 terrorists were mad -- every single one of them. Osama bin Laden is mad as well. Look what they did. They harnessed technology, the power of the airplane, and killed almost 3,000 people in a morning's work. Hitler was probably always mad, but when he got to be dictator of Germany, he could exploit the technology and organizational ability of the most advanced nation in Europe to murder people without reason. Yes, of course, he had his reasons -- but they were mad. Pol Pot was mad and Stalin was mad and so was Idi Amin, but without as much expertise. A good thing, too.

I think the Soviet threat during the McCarthy period made America a touch mad. And we went more than a bit crazy after Sept. 11 and approved the war that now confounds us. Tell us again how we got in? Tell us, please, how to get out. Madmen had killed Americans in New York, Washington and that field in Pennsylvania. Saddam Hussein was mad, supposedly working on nuclear and other weapons. Madness had to be taken into account. Madness met madness. It's hard now to give another explanation for the war.

The madmen of history must have been a frustrated lot. They could do only what was technologically feasible. Now, the sky's the limit. Think of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is he mad? Possibly. Is he developing nuclear weapons? Possibly. Is it then possible that a madman could have nuclear weapons? Yes. Should we worry? You bet. Should we worry that we will become mad in turn? Yes. Yes, indeed.

Increasingly, we are in reach of madmen. We can move and they can find us. They fly planes into our buildings and drive cars into markets and come onto the campuses, not as strangers but as fellow students. Each of these events scares us, triggers the oldest parts of the brain -- makes us a bit mad. We are the Ultimate Weapon, the ultimate threat, too. Virginia hurts.

God help us all.

cohenr@washpost.com


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